Tetsu Yamauchi, Paul Rodgers, Simon Kirke
Winterland, San Francisco, California
January 26, 1973
Photos by Dan Cuny
Text by Michael Collins Morton
Paul Rodgers, Wendell Richardson
Free began to make music in 1968. Paul Rodgers (vocals, piano, guitar), Andy Fraser (bass, piano), Paul Kossoff (guitar), and Simon Kirke (drums) were still in their teens when they first joined together in London, but the depth of their talent was abundantly evident. Paul Kossoff and Simon Kirke already had played together in Black Cat Bones, Andy Fraser had played with John Mayall, and Paul Rodgers (who started out with The Roadrunners, later known as The Wildflowers, in his native Middlesbrough) had been a member of Brown Sugar. Their collective name, Free, was given to them by Alexis Korner, an eminent figure in the world of British blues.
The first album by Free, Tons of Sobs, was released on Island Records in 1969. It featured a driving sound that was hard and bluesy (as heard on "I'm a Mover," one of the best tracks), and proved that the young musicians were musically mature beyond their years. In particular, the sturdy voice of Paul Rodgers and the eloquent guitar of Paul Kossoff were singled out for glowing praise. Their second album, Free, also released in 1969, featured another collection of solid tracks (most of them written by Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers), including "I'll be Creepin'," "Songs of Yesterday," "Lying in the Sunshine," and "Mouthful of Grass."
Everything changed for Free with the release of their third album, Fire and Water, in 1970. One of the tracks, "All Right Now," was released as a single and became a worldwide hit, transforming Free into a major band. In addition to "All Right Now," the album featured a number of other excellent tracks, including "Fire and Water," "Oh I Wept," "Heavy Load," and "Mr. Big." Fire and Water was quickly followed by Highway, which was less favorably received by the public, but did contain a handful of strong tracks, with "The Stealer," "Be My Friend," "Ride on a Pony," and "Soon I Will Be Gone" standing out.
After the release of Highway, the story of Free took an unfortunate turn for the worse, becoming fraught with trouble and tragedy. Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser, who together wrote most of the songs for the band, were starting to be at odds with each other, and Paul Kossoff was becoming a heavy user of drugs. As a result of those problems, and in spite of having another hit, "My Brother Jake," in the United Kingdom, Free broke up in 1971. A fifth and seemingly final album, Free Live! (recorded at performances in England during 1970), was released in September of that year.
In 1972, the four musicians had second thoughts and decided to revive Free. A new album, Free at Last, was released, but Paul Kossoff frequently was too unhealthy to perform. Andy Fraser grew tired of the unstable situation within the band and quit in the summer of 1972, but Free continued without him, releasing another album, Heartbreaker (which included "Wishing Well" and "Easy on My Soul," two of their greatest tracks), at the beginning of 1973. Unfortunately, Paul Kossoff still was seriously burdened by the injurious effects of his ongoing abuse of drugs, and could not take part in the American tour that followed. (His short life came to an end in 1976, when he was twenty-five.)
David: This concert was an amazing event. It was the first time that all four of us arrived early in the morning at Winterland, so that we could be close to the stage. It opened with John Martyn, who played solo acoustic guitar. His echo effects were mesmerizing. At one point he broke a string on his guitar. He did a sort of scat singing while he pulled new strings out of his pocket, found the right one, restrung and tuned his guitar, all in a matter of seconds. I was stunned by his speed and skill at dealing with what must be one of the worst things that can happen to a musician onstage.
The top act on the bill was Traffic, but the arrival of Free was highly anticipated by myself and, I am sure, many others. I had become a huge fan of their music, mainly due to the LPs Fire and Water and Highway. Their new album Heartbreaker was just being released, so I had no knowledge of the changes in the band.
When they appeared on stage, I was shocked. There was a keyboard player with a top hat, a Japanese bass player, and West Indian musician on lead guitar. No Andy Fraser or Paul Kossoff. Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke were there, so I knew it was Free, but obviously there were major changes. I realized that the original lineup of Free had disbanded, and other musicians had been brought in to complete the tour. This was an immense disappointment.
I remember that at times the keyboard player, John "Rabbit" Bundrick, would clap his hands over his head and call for the audience to clap along. I found that to be very annoying. The guitarist was playing chunky chords in a style that would have been more suited to a funk band. (I found out later that he was Wendell Richardson from Osibisa.) This was all very disappointing, but Paul Rodgers really made up for it.
Paul Rodgers was tremendous. I definitely got the feeling that he was carrying the weight of the whole band and its legacy on his shoulders, and was determined to give it his all. He gave the performance of a lifetime, with power and confidence. I remember that for one song, he was on the stage alone and played an acoustic guitar. I thought to myself what courage it took to be up there in front of thousands of fans, without a band. Rodgers was the ultimate pro.
Surprisingly, the new album, even with a fractured band, was outstanding. The title track and "Wishing Well" were great songs. I was glad to catch Free before they completely disappeared, but I was left with a hollow feeling that it could have been much better.
Gary: I think this Winterland concert was Traffic headlining, Free as second act, and John Martyn opening. What a concert! I was pretty mesmerized by John Martyn's use of echo electronics with his acoustic guitar. A marvelous opening act.
Free during their career was a really tight band. On the "All Right Now" single, the subtlety is there even in that full-throated rocker. When Paul Kossoff is soloing, Andy Fraser's piano is what anchors the sound. Very tasteful, with great chording and rhythms binding it together. Simon Kirke could be powerful or reflective in his drumming, whatever was called for. I think the moody, reflective songs were what made Free great, and the melodies could be very well thought out.
Free at Winterland was not really Free as they were on most of their recordings. Without Paul Kossoff and Andy Fraser, I think we all felt a bit disappointed, as I remember. However, the performance was powerful enough, with Paul Rodgers, one of the classic rock vocalists of all time, in fine form. He was bouncing around the stage, driving the music, stomping with menace, holding the microphone stand in a pointing, leading way. I remember him playing acoustic guitar and singing the minor key ballad, "Soon I Will Be Gone" from the Highway LP.
The Winterland set had a new guitarist playing with Free, who was actually the guitarist with Osibisa. I remember a guitar with a lot of wah-wah pedal, which didn't fit too well, though it was advanced playing. I was used to Paul Kossoff's long, incredible, sustained-note solos, not funky, rhythm and blues based playing. Tetsu's bass playing seemed very competent (a solid studio musician), but the keyboards by John "Rabbit" Bundrick seemed not a perfect match. I recall him shaking a couple of tambourines together and trying to get the audience to clap in time for a song or two, and this, in my mind, destroyed what I loved so much in Free's music. I felt that the only clapping should be at the end of a song. I thought the audience should listen intently to the carefully written and dynamically performed songs, and then clap at the end only.
Other than these complaints, I enjoyed the set. Paul Rodgers carried the whole thing with his energy, and the other musicians fed off that. I feel lucky even to have seen this patchwork version of the band. Their last album, Heartbreaker, had that same patchwork feel, but it's still a very good record. I value all my Free recordings to this day.
Dan: This was one of the all-time great shows that we went to see. Traffic headlining, Free the second act, and John Martyn the opening act. John Martyn put on a short, and very nice, set to start the show off. I didn't know much about him at the time, but I did buy a few of his albums afterward, as I liked his acoustic style.
We only got to see half of Free, however, which was disappointing, personnel-wise. I was a very big fan of this band. I really liked Paul Kossoff and his long, sustained notes when he played lead, and the rhythm section of Andy Fraser on bass and Simon Kirke on drums always laid down a strong beat. Paul Rodgers was a very distinctive singer with a powerful voice.
I remember that their album Heartbreaker was released that month, so we might have known that there were new members. Paul Kossoff was ill, and Andy Fraser was forming a new band, Sharks. John "Rabbit" Bundrick was on the new album, and they had a new bass player, Tetsu Yamauchi.
I can remember the anticipation of seeing a band that I had always liked. When the lights came on, all I kept thinking was, this is not the band I had anticipated seeing. The guitarist (Wendell Richardson) played heavily on the wah-wah pedal. The guitar solos were not what I had expected. I really liked seeing Paul Rodgers, who had a very strong stage presence. His vocals were in top form, and he really was the focal point that night. Simon Kirke laid down a great beat. It was just odd seeing Tetsu, but we also saw him later with The Faces.
I did get some pretty good photos, primarily focusing on Paul Rodgers. I was pretty upset that they weren't the original band when we saw them at this show. I remember talking to Michael, Gary, and David about how much better the older band would have been. Nonetheless, Paul Rodgers was great.
Michael: Free appeared in the middle of one of the best shows that we ever saw at Winterland. John Martyn was the first act, followed by Free, and Traffic were the headliners. We were quite excited at the prospect of seeing Free, but it turned out to be something of a letdown. The absence of Paul Kossoff and Andy Fraser meant that it was not the same band that we had hoped to see. I had a special feeling for the music of Free, and I was particularly fond of Paul Kossoff's wonderful musicianship, so I could not help being extremely disappointed by the different band that we saw on the stage.
In spite of the letdown, it still was a thoroughly enjoyable performance, mostly because Paul Rodgers was a formidable showman. He actually was short and slight, but he was a human whirlwind on stage, strutting and posing in the spotlight as he sang, displaying all the spirited moves that marked him as one of the best performers in his generation of British singers. His voice sounded just as amazing as it did on the recordings. It was not surprising that he later became an even bigger star with Bad Company.
The main problem with the band was Wendell Richardson, the new guitarist. His funky style, which (in my opinion) was overly dependent on the use of wah-wah, had absolutely nothing in common with the more expressive style that Paul Kossoff had brought to the songs, and was completely unsuited to the music of Free. He ruined their rendering of "All Right Now," playing the famous riff much too fast.
Paul Rodgers did give a stunning performance, one that I have never forgotten, but there were a few moments when he also seemed ill at ease. He certainly must have known that the band behind him was not what it should have been. At the close of the set, he picked up an acoustic guitar and sang "Soon I Will Be Gone," the final song on Highway. It was a fitting end, and redeemed the entire set for me.
More about Free at David's Rock Scrapbook
Photos and memories of Traffic at Winterland here
A memory of John Martyn at Winterland here
Next: John Entwistle